Wyl Menmuir – a conversation about writing and Teachers as Writers

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What a wonderful, if somewhat overcast, morning spent with Wyl in Falmouth. A passionate writer, educator and wearer of many hats, our conversation started as we drove from Truro train station to the delightful Providore Tapas Bar and Cafe for coffee. We discussed writing, teaching and the current research project involving teachers and writers at Marlborough School, in conjunction with Arvon, Exeter University and The Open University.

Teacher as Writers is not the only project Wyl, who originally trained as a primary teacher, is involved with at present. Currently he is working with Year 8 students on creative writing who will then mentor younger students, in the final years of primary school, and assist in their editing. We reflected on the importance of convincing students that their first effort is rarely their best response. Wyl described how one pupil, when asked what they might do as mentors, mentioned that ‘we need to promote the idea of a ‘growth mindset’ . Apparently, this was the subject of a recent school assembly, and this student had applied his understanding of the broad concept to a specific situation. Further, Wyl reported that this boy spoke in terms of encouraging students to think about how they can improve, and that their best writing hadn’t happened ‘yet’.

This project, mostly aimed at  gifted students, sees Wyl work one day a week in a secondary school, but will later branch out into a more inclusive format with mixed ability students later in the year. On site, he is based in the library and students are withdrawn at different times to avoid missing any particular subject on a regular basis.

Previously, Wyl has worked with the National Literacy Trust, and while working in the library at Priory School, he asked parents to donate a book as part of the 2008 Year of Reading initiative. After printing 1000 letters for students to take home, creating book labels for ‘Priory Reads’ and staring down colleague criticism – it’ll never work; what a waste of paper – Wyl reports it was quite successful and encouraged more parental involvement with the school. The Priory books sat on library shelves, alongside regular collections. People were asked to report when they had found a book with an individual ‘I loved this book because …’ label which drew many  into the library.

This project helped share an understanding for the importance of reading. Wyl himself believes that it is imperative to create and foster an ‘enthusiasm for words’ among students of all ages, to model our own interest in words, such as their origins and spellings, as a way to promote confidence in using language. This led us to consider the role of the Arvon Foundation, a charitable UK trust that promotes creative writing a

runs an annual programme of residential creative writing courses and retreats for schools, groups and individuals. The five-day courses, tutored by leading authors, are held at three beautiful rural writers’ houses and include a powerful mix of workshops and individual tutorials, with time and space to write, free from the distractions of everyday life. The courses are in a wide range of genres, including fiction, poetry, screenwriting and playwriting. Grants are available to help with course fees.

This short film explores experiences from Arvon Residential Writing Courses:

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 2.38.27 pmArvon Foundation

Wyl explained that the ideas for his first novel came from his immersion at an Arvon course, and knowing the value and impact of such an experience, he organised a group of Priory School students to attend an Arvon course at Lumb Bank in January 2013. During the week long course, students were engaged in different writing activities and forest walks, cooking and kitchen cleaning shores. One student later reported that he

didn’t think he  could do it but now I think I can cause … I never thought my work would stand out

then responded ‘yea’ when asked if he thought his work would stand out now.

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 12.48.56 pmguest author Gareth P Jones

Two accomplished writers, Gillian Cress and Steve Voake, worked with the students and were greatly impressed with the commitment and quality of writing produced. Gillian explained it was her first residential with young writers and was impressed by

the way in which they engaged with all the workshops and then carried on writing under their own impetus. As their confidence grew, they emerged as really distinct individuals – distinct writing characters with particularly different directions for their writing.

Steve Voake stated that it was a ‘magical week’ and that

right from the beginning they were very talented writers … but they’ve reflected more, they’ve used lots of starting points … they’ve used their imaginations, they’ve worked and re-worked, and then had the confidence to stand up and share their work … [additionally] they’ve recognised they’re among writers, they’re all writers and … realised they’re all got something original to give.

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 12.46.32 pm

Wyl then outlined some specific writing activities that he has provided at Marlborough School, Falmouth as part of the Teachers as Writers research project. As the partnered writer, he conducts two visits to his assigned school and negotiated with each teacher to split their classes in order to allow for more personalised supervision.

Kath’s class has been exploring Beowulf and the students have decided to write a quest narrative. Meanwhile, Lou’s class have been ‘plant hunters’. Wyl enthusiastically described the two different writing visits

We took the students down to the beach and stood them in the water, knee deep, to experience what it would feel like to step off a long ship and onto a new land. I overheard different student conversations: slipping in and out of different perspectives and voice, from first to second person. In this way, you could hear different characters emerging. We then took them onto the sand – walking then standing – and worked on sound mapping: what can you hear? Sitting down, they used symbols to represent different sounds. All this lead to the gathering of words and ideas as preparation for writing an opening to their quest narrative back in the class room.

Read Wyl’s perspective at the Teachers as Writers blog.

In contrast, Lou had prepared a number of different exotic plants, and placed these throughout a meadow attached to the school. In smaller groups, students were encouraged to hunt out a plant, examine and describe, also gathering words and ideas for their writing. There are future plans for a whole group sharing on the beach, possibly with a fire and employing the traditions of oral storytelling, yet the increased level of engagement and positivity from students writing in their chosen space in small groups was undeniable on the day I visited Falmouth.

I look forward to the research findings of this project: read about the teacher’s experiences in the next blog post Marlborough School – an inspiring oasis in Falmouth.

 

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